(CBS) – When you have a spinal cord injury, use a wheelchair or have a developmental disability, everything on land can be a bit more challenging, but a Kankakee organization is offering a sense of freedom to the disabled through adaptive diving.
“Our whole goal is to work with adaptive divers whether they have some mental or physical challenges,” said DiveSTARS Founder Mike Milosovic.
It’s a Sunday morning at Haigh Quarry in Kankakee and divers are making a splash and using the water as training. 20-year-old Rikki Kirsch gets ready for a new challenge. Kirsch is considered mildly mentally impaired and struggles with her speech, but today she is training to become a certified scuba diver with the nonprofit organization DiveSTARS.
Milosovic says they train people will all sorts of disabilities to become scuba divers.
“We can work with quadriplegics, we can work with amputees, down syndrome,” she said.
Adaptive Divers are usually those with spinal cord injuries (paraplegic, quadriplegic), neurological disorders, amputees, visually impaired, or hearing impaired. Both Adaptive and Escorted Divers can dive in the mainstream diving community once they are certified.
Today, Kirsch works with her dive buddy Michelle Vrtis. A check of her oxygen tank, and her breathing apparatus and she’s ready to go.
“When you’re underwater, everything goes away. The pain goes away and you forget about everything on land,” said Vrtis.
Kirsch has been training since June, and Vrtis says scuba has made all the difference.
“She has enjoyed it and she’s blossomed so much doing this. I love seeing things through her eyes.”
Rikki’s mother Chris watches from shore. She says it’s emotional as she sees her daughter’s disability on land turn into ability in the water.
“She’s a totally different person. It brings tears to my eyes every time,” said Kirsch.
For Rikki, learning to dive has given her confidence and a sense of purpose.
“So this has done a lot for you? Yes. How does it feel? It gives me confidence. I like it.”
Milosovic says adaptive diving for the disabled offers a new sense of freedom.
“It gives them a sense of self accomplishment that not a lot of people end up having.”
Rikki’s mom would agree.
“It’s the moment we had hoped to happen and now it has,” said Kirsh.
After all, underwater, we are all equal.
DiveSTARS is a non profit organization. If you’d like to donate or be volunteer, log onto dive-stars.org.
By: Lisa Fielding
Lisa Fielding is a news anchor and reporter for Newsradio 780.